Sunday, July 15, 2018

Targeting Tony Daniel? Tampa begins to tighten public comment rules

TAMPA —Tony Daniel has a long, unhappy history at City Hall.

Dating back to the mid 1990s, Daniel, 60, has regularly used his three minutes of public comment at council meetings to hurl profane and racially provocative invective at council members.

Once he chained himself to his seat during a council meeting. He’s been removed and arrested multiple times for his behavior during public comment.

More recently, Daniel made news for driving his pickup truck though the city with a large sign described in a Tampa Bay Times story last year as emblazoned with a "Confederate flag, a Nazi flag, a photo of a lynching, Mayor Bob Buckhorn’s photo, references to Home Depot and multiple uses of the word "n-----."

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Racist slurs on Tampa truck shock, confuse and mislead onlookers (March 3, 2017)

Last week, council members took the first step toward changing their rules so they could potentially remove Daniel and other speakers from council meetings who violate new language guidelines — borrowed from the Hillsborough County Commission —regulating conduct and decorum.

Starting in April, speakers will be barred from "launching personal attacks against any city official, city staff member or member of the public" and from "disruptive behavior, including making vulgar or threatening remarks."

Council members and the city council attorney, though, were careful to say the change isn’t aimed specifically at Daniel.

"It’s not directed at any one person," said vice-chairman Harry Cohen, who along with Frank Reddick, initiated the rule change. "We want to keep it respectful and businesslike. It should be a professional environment."

Respectful and businesslike hasn’t always been Daniel’s modus operandi.

In the 1990s, he was arrested multiple times for his conduct. In 1994, after calling then-Mayor Sandy Freedman a "Jew dog" and council member Perry Harvey Jr. "Negro scum," the board took a vote on whether to permanently ban him. It failed.

That same year, he was jailed for spray-painting graffiti criticizing the police and the Tampa Housing Authority.

Daniel, who is black and has been affiliated with the International People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement, was ejected from several meetings in 2003 and 2005.

After those incidents, Daniel didn’t come around much to City Hall until about a year ago, when he again became a regular presence and again pushed the boundaries of propriety.

At a January meeting, Daniel used slurs to refer to Cohen and Capin." Those remarks passed without a rebuke from council members.

But at the Feb. 22 meeting, when Daniel suggested that the city launch an "a--hole of the year award," council member Mike Suarez had enough.

"I would suggest that the speaker please direct comments to us without the colorful language. That would be appreciated, sir," Suarez said.

When Daniel asked Suarez for a list of banned words, Suarez demurred, saying council didn’t ban speech. But it did have the right to control the decorum of the chamber, he said. Suarez suggested Daniel not use any language that he wouldn’t use in front of his mother or grandmother.

At the March 1 meeting, Daniel, during public comment, said Suarez’s remarks were a racist attempt to control his speech.

Attempts to reach Daniel for comment by phone and at addresses associated with him were not successful.

Later in that meeting, the council gave initial approval to its rule change. The new rules will take effect April 5, said city council attorney Martin Shelby.

"The goal is to have a meeting that is efficient and is conducted with decorum and civility," Shelby told the Tampa Bay Times.

Shelby said courts have consistently ruled that some restrictions can be placed on public comment at government meetings.

In fact, a Florida case is now before the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments last week in Lozman v. City of Riviera Beach, Fl.

Fane Lozman was arrested in 2006 for comments about public corruption he made during public comment at a Riviera Beach city council meeting. Two federal courts have upheld his arrest for disruption of a lawful public assembly.

Cohen said the council’s action is not about limiting First Amendment rights, but creating an atmosphere that fosters civil dialogue.

"We should allow as wide of latitude as possible because we want people to express themselves. We do," Cohen said. "But a line is crossed when it comes to obscenity or inappropriate language for a public forum."

Editor’s Note: The original version of this story incorrectly stated that Tampa City council member Harry Cohen said the council’s action was intended to limit First Amendment rights. Cohen had stated the opposite.

Senior Times researcher John Martin contributed to this story. Contact Charlie Frago at [email protected] or (727)893-8459. [email protected]

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